There was a time — a time not long ago — when I thought all the talk about cancel culture and the climate of opinion on a handful of college campuses was something like a moral panic.
A moral panic is a form of social hysteria, and it usually involves our concern for young people — often children. A great evil threatens society, and a handful of moral entrepreneurs oppose themselves to it, often becoming semi-celebrities of righteousness. Moral panics are usually rooted in a real social anxiety but attached to a conspiracy theory or morbid pessimism. The satanic day-care controversies of the 1980s were rooted in the very real fear and guilt of mothers of young children who had entered the workforce and hired these institutions to watch their children. But they produced paranoid and fantastical beliefs of hidden dungeons underneath preschools.
I thought cancel culture was a little like that — maybe that it was two moral panics joined to each other. The students themselves, encountering challenging or just different ideas for the first time, reacted as if encountering a threat, and called upon the authorities in their schools to solve it, the way that parents and other authority figures had tried to mediate for them in childhood. The parents of our young “cancelers” experienced real shame about their helicopter-style of overparenting and felt real fear that their college-aged children were overindulged and underprepared for real life by their colleges.
Well, it turned out that cancel culture and the woke revolution attached to it is a real problem, and not just among celebrities and journalists. It is deforming institutions, poisoning social interactions, and leading to waves of self-censorship and commercial censorship.
The story in the New York Times of a hyper-privileged Smith student wielding patently false and self-serving accusations of racial bias against the working-class people who work as janitors and waitresses on campus is illustrative of the problem as normal people would experience it. What it illustrates, more than anything, is the way a class of elites has internalized a perception of omnipresent threat, such that its members experience the commonest interactions as oppressive. And their reaction tends to be the opposite of noblesse oblige — they lash out at their own servants. This pattern of cultural and moral formation is intensely destructive of social relations in a democracy that requires privileged people to wield their power and influence mildly.
And that really is the question: one of moral formation. It occurred to me while reading the testimony of Donald McNeil Jr., the veteran New York Times journalist who was hung out to dry in public and pressured to resign because he used the n-word among prep-school students — not as a slur, but merely referring to the word itself.
McNeil’s account reveals a man who reveled somewhat in being a grizzled veteran journalist, possessed of a certain professional haughtiness. But one thing that struck me is that when the Times’ Corporate Communications department instructs him to issue an apology ahead of an upcoming expose in the Daily Beast — an apology for an event that an internal investigation had cleared him on — McNeil balks. He writes back
Please say nothing from me. I may still be a stubborn Catholic school boy. I will take the beating, but if I didn’t commit the sin, I won’t ask for forgiveness.
Right there is the difference. Whatever McNeil’s current theological convictions, he had the moral formation of a Catholic school and sacramental preparation. This would have encouraged him at sensitive ages and times in his life to seriously think about the distinctions between sins of omission and sins of commission, between white lies and perjury, between venial and mortal sins, and the relationship between knowledge, intention, and guilt. If he practiced confession, he likely would have received further reminders that certain thoughts and actions over which we might feel guilty are not, in fact, sins at all. That is, it would have given him a sophisticated and supple understanding of duty and conscience, as well as the personal and social need for mercy. All this solid moral and philosophical formation will tend to survive even the erosion or evolution of personal faith.
A communications department has a very different understanding of these matters, informed by the practice of public relations, which has a dim and ungenerous view of human nature and social relations — and tends to view statements of guilt or remorse as political tools meant to shape outcomes rather than as true or false statements about a living soul in relationship to God and the world.
How many young reporters and students from elite schools lack the kind of highly intentional moral formation McNeil had? Many of these products fall into the “nones” and lack the kind of Sunday-school or catechetical formation their parents had. That formation stiffened McNeil’s spine in the face of a smear campaign and made him anxious to avoid telling any further lies in the process.
I suspect few of them have had it. Their moral philosophy has been informed almost entirely by media controversies in which apologies are nothing more than a social lubricant — and assumed to be insincere. The formation of these media-relations fiascos tends to scar and scab over the conscience, to treat it as an irrelevance or, at best, a private problem to be overcome. It leaves them with guilt and no process of expiation. It makes them into manipulators, and urges them to be easily manipulated themselves. We’re in trouble.